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Charl-Pierre Naudé

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Annelie Botes: Petty indignation will not defeat racism

(Translation of an article published in Beeld, 30/12/2010, “‘n Huilresies van die heiliges”)

Allow me to kick up a puff – now that the storm is dying down around this writer who was stripped of her SALA (South African Literary Awards) prize and R30 000 worth of prize money for allegedly making racist statements in the press.

I have just reread the maligned words of Annelie Botes in which she says she does “not like black people” because she “does not understand them”.

The shocking thing about the whole affair is not so much Botes’ (ill considered) statements. It is the curious vehemence of the moral indignation that followed her utterance. Because, quite frankly, if you neatly situate what she said within the context of South Africa today, there was precious little racism in anything she had said.

There is a disingenuousness that has taken hold of moral indignation in this country and it poses a far greater threat to moral coexistence between races and people, to reflective moral judgement and to moral maturity in general, than any racism. This trend, I believe, has grown in the shadow of a confused state who has tethered the idea of political morality so narrowly to its own overblown ego, that our political morality runs the risk of losing any trace of universality.

And I ask, is that not a greater danger than some nominal racism?

The wilful lack of any attempt to gauge the most probable meaning of Botes’ utterances, while the plaintiffs – voices aligned to the state, sundry fellow writers; black and white – secretly know exactly what she meant, is simply loathsome. Every John and bobtail sanctimoniously lined up for the Big Race of Righteous Tears.

No trace here of righteous magnanimity, that mark of the true moral indignation. Ever heard of Jesus and the good race? “Father forgive them …”? Ever heard of Desmond Tutu? There are other iconic examples from every culture.

Would a press release by SALA in firm but questioning language not have been more appropriate in calling the rash Botes to liability? In that way SALA might have afforded themselves the opportunity to make doubly sure of their case.

The unavoidable conclusion of it all is that the ideal of non-racialism in our country has lost its greatness. And that comes as no surprise.

What Botes also said was that she does not like “black people” because she is “scared of them”.

I don’t deny that a dangerous level of racism at present exists, not least among whites.

But at the same time, surely people know that terms such as “blacks” and “whites” in this country are often used as shorthand for completely other meanings? The race category is commonly and unconsciously used as code for other, much heavier felt differences, such as culture and class, in the commoner’s language. (And Botes did prove herself a commoner in the clumsiness of her utterance.)

Put differently: If the ANC state can use a term like “black people” as shorthand for “true South Africans” and for “the disenfranchised”, is it so unexpected that someone like Botes would do the same in reference to criminals?

Of course dangerous criminals are not only black! But, in Botes’ subjective, very partial, very human little world – maybe they are?

Indeed it is a repugnant habit (as Botes so well illustrated) to use race terms in reference to implied groupings that have nothing to do with race – such as class, conviction, political affiliation, categories of social degeneration, and so forth. But what has the ANC-led state – the patron of the SALA awards – itself done to change this habit? Preciously little; in fact, it has remobilised it!

Let us look at the broader picture of how the petulant and smallminded nature of prevailing moral indignation is eating away at our moral, and aestethic, good judgement.

The relationship between achievement and reward has become unrecognisably skewed. Reward does not follow achievement, as it should; it follows “correct” achievements: There is a direct link between illiterate company directors who earn millions for doing absolutely nothing, and stripping a good book of a prize for reasons that are not inherent to the awarding. Typical of our identity politics, achievement willy-nilly ends up being equated to the identity of the achiever, not the achievement itself.

Furthermore, good art has for some time now in our country, often enough, been equated to good convictions. This must be the one single reason why literary mediocrity sometimes assumes such an inflated idea of own its merit.

A book might promote understanding, healing and edification among races – even in supreme ways – without the writer himself necessarily having non-racial opinions. A good example is the American Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner. The world of literature abounds with similar moral discrepancies.

A good book provides a three-dimentional experience that supercedes any, and all, convictions. That is the sense of books.

Which brings us to truthfulness. Ah, truthfulness. It is an indispensable aesthetic and moral quality, inherent to the best artistic expression. With a single stroke, the SALA awards have proved themselves completely lacking in this quality themselves. You cannot award that which you yourself so patently belie.

It is a pity, because SALA does very good work, potentially at least. But not while they are so obviously ideologically blinkered.


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